Each loaf of soda bread tells a story of survival. It wasn’t invented by the Irish but they embraced it as fortification during one of the country’s darkest times.
The Irish had no great love affair with bread prior to the 1840s. Good flour was expensive and yeast-risen breads required ovens to bake. Irish peasants could barely afford soft winter wheat flour which lacked the gluten necessary for making bread. As for having an oven, well, the average rural family lived in a single-room, windowless mud cabin that lacked a chimney. If there was any baking to be done, an open hearth would have to do.
Rather, potatoes were the staff of life in Ireland. Though they were not native to the country, potatoes thrived in the cool, moist soil. Furthermore, it was a high-yielding crop on even the smallest plots of land. “An acre of fertilized potato field could yield up to 12 tons of potatoes, enough to feed a family of six for a year with leftovers going to the family’s animals. By the 1800s…more than three million Irish peasants subsisted solely on the vegetable.” In the 1840s, this meant it was the diet for over a third of the population.
This sufficed until August 1845 when the first reports of widespread potato crop failure were reported to British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. While this would officially mark the beginning of the Great Famine, it was three hundred years in the making. It was not caused simply by a potato blight or a scarcity of food in general, or a lack of initiative or skill by Irish farmers or numerous other cultural pejoratives and euphemisms ascribed to the Irish by English aristocrats. Rather it was the result of systematic oppression by English rule against Irish Catholics to a genocidal degree.
Though there had been previous invasions and conquests carried out by the English, it was Henry VIII’s 1536 campaign against Ireland which set in motion the institutionalized dehumanization of the Irish. What followed was centuries of massacres and atrocities committed against civilians, the confiscation of lands, the outlawing of native language, religion, the right to an education and the right to work, and the mass incarceration and forced indentured servitude of thousands of Irish political prisoners.
The result was a system where Irish tenants – with no other options for employment – lived on small, poor plots of land owned by English absentee landlords. Because improvements to the land subsequently became property of the landlord – for example building a house of stone rather than mud – there was no incentive to do beyond what would keep a family alive. Hence, the Irish focused on the subsistence the potato provided.
However, it is worth noting that there was not a shortage food in Ireland during the famine. Quite the opposite, in fact. As documented by English poet and social reformer, Ebenezer Jones, in 1846 alone, Ireland exported to England “…3,266,193 quarters of wheat, barley and oats, besides flour, beans, peas, and rye; 186,483 cattle, 6,363 calves, 259,257 sheep, 180,827 swine…and yet this very year…was pre-eminently, owing to a land monopoly, the famine year for the Irish people.”
Nevertheless, in the end, approximately a million Irish died either directly from starvation or from opportunistic diseases associated with poverty and starvation and a million more emigrated from the country. The true numbers will never be known because as 1851 census commissioners noted, “The greater the amount of destitution of mortality … the less will be the amount of recorded deaths derived through any household form; – for not only were whole families swept away by disease … but whole villages were effaced from off the land.” Officially, however, in six years, Ireland lost 25% of its population. The results were devastating psychologically, culturally and economically in ways that linger and reverberate to this day.
Yet, Ireland survived. Through it’s survival, it never relinquished its identity. And whether because of its pain or in spite of it, Ireland gave and continues to give the world a trove of art, humor, music, poetry, and literature. And its survival is owed to humble, simple recipes such as this soda bread. Through the invention of soda bicarbonate in the 1830s and without the potato to rely on, the Irish could now make hearth-baked bread of the inexpensive soft winter wheat, buttermilk and salt. The result is a savory, hearty, crusty, chewy, delectable bread that will both warm and feed you. For me, it is an honor to be able to bake this bread as both a survivor story and a memorial.
Traditional Irish Soda Bread
- 15 ounces all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal (3 cups; 425g)
- 1 3/4 teaspoons 7g Diamond Crystal kosher salt for table salt, use the same weight or half as much by volume
- 1 1/8 teaspoons baking soda
- 18 ounces low-fat cultured buttermilk, well shaken 2 1/4 cups; 510g
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 450°F at least 15 minutes in advance. Roughly cover the bottom of a deep 10-inch cast iron or enameled Dutch oven with a sheet of parchment paper; no need to trim.
Combine flour, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl and whisk a full minute to combine. Stir in buttermilk with a flexible spatula until dough is fully moistened and no pockets of flour remain. For extra-fluffy results, stop folding as soon as dough comes together. For extra-chewy results, fold dough about 20 seconds more. Scrape sticky dough into prepared Dutch oven and smooth with a spatula into a rough boule-like shape. Score deeply into quarters with a sharp knife or razor, cleaning the blade between each slice.
Cover and bake until well risen and golden, 45 minutes. Remove lid and continue baking until chestnut brown, with an internal temperature of 210°F, 12 to 15 minutes longer. Invert onto a wire rack, discard parchment, turn right side up, and cool until crumb has set, about 30 minutes. Cut thick slices to accompany hearty soups and stews, or slice thinly for sandwiches. (This will be easier if bread is allowed to cool 2 hours more.) Store up to 24 hours in an airtight container and toast to freshen bread before serving.